The United Kingdom has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe and children can be held criminally responsible from the age of 10. This is the youngest age of criminality in Europe and has been condemned by the United Nations.
The change in law was, at least in part, driven by public pressure in the wake of the James Bulger case where 2 children aged 10 were convicted of murdering the toddler.
Before 1998 there was a presumption in law that children under 14 did not know the difference between right and wrong and were therefore not capable of committing a criminal offence. This was a rebuttable presumption meaning that the prosecution had to satisfy the court that the child knew what they were doing was seriously wrong.
In 1998 the law changed and now any child over the age of 9 can be arrested, taken to a police station, interviewed under caution and charged with offences. They may be taken to court, participate in the trial process and if convicted will have a criminal record. These kids are entitled to all the rights of an adult offender and will also have an appropriate adult appointed to safeguard their welfare.
Are the sentences for children the same for adults?
Of course not. There is a focus in the youth courts which deal with all but the most serious of offences, to steer away from criminalising behaviour. There is a focus on the offender not the offence and sentencing focuses on education as opposed to punitive measures.
A criminal conviction or caution can seriously inhibit a young person’s chances of progressing in life. All cautions and convictions received in England and Wales are stored on the Police National Computer (PNC) until an individual is 100 years. They will also show on a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) record. A criminal record can therefore either preclude a person from applying for a very wide range of jobs or at the very least it will involve them having to explain their childhood convictions – and potentially the fact that they were in care depending on the circumstances – to potential employers for the rest of their lives.
This can often result in reinforcing a criminal identity for the youth which has the start of a cycle of criminality.
Everyone should have the opportunity to move on from things that happened when they were children – but the current system for retention and disclosure of youth criminal records means that many people accused of minor crimes in childhood are unable to do so.
In 2019, the Supreme Court handed down a judgement on the disclosure of youth reprimands and cautions. Youth reprimands and cautions are supposed to divert children away from the criminal justice system when they are accused of minor crimes, but under the current regime some reprimands and cautions can appear on police checks for decades after they were issued. The Supreme Court decided that this system is disproportionate and damaging to the future rehabilitation of children, preventing them from moving on from their past.
The law has yet to change but in light of this judgement we can be hopeful that it will.
Rachel Fletcher is a partner and head of Slater Heelis’ Crime and Regulatory Team with extensive experience and knowledge in advising upon these cases. For further information please contact Rachel on 0161 672 1544 or by email: [email protected]